Friday, May 6, 2016

Douglas Messerli | "Taking Up the Axe" (on Richard Strauss' Electra)


taking up the axe
by Douglas Messerli
 

Hugo von Hofmannsthal (libretto, based on his own adaptation of the Sophocles tragedy), Richard Strauss (composer) Elektra / the production Howard Fox and I saw was a Metropolitan Opera HD live production on Saturday, April 30, 2016

The powerful production of Richard Strauss’ 1908 opera Elektra* which Howard and I attended the other day was our second production of the opera. I’m sure that earlier production was also quite excellent. If I remember correctly we even sat, for free, at a matinee production in the President’s box. But this new MET production, starring Nina Stemme as Elektra, etched itself upon my memory in a way that I will never be able to see another Electra without comparing it.
       Stemme transformed the wounded woman, desperate to revenge her father Agamemnon’s death, from a somewhat indecisive Hamlet-like figure into a character absolutely ready and willing to accomplish the act. If only she had easy access to the house; in this version she appears to have been locked out. And if only she were not a woman or had an ally in her sister, the more rational yet more conventional Chrysthemis (the splendid Adrianne Pieczonka), she would take up the axe and whack her mother, Klytämmestra (Waltraud Meier) and step-father Aegisth (Burkhard Ulrich) more than 40 whacks.
      Elektra may be a psychological mess, clearly driven by the male figures of her father and brother, but she is nonetheless a would-be hero in a world in which not only her life in danger (as Chrysthemis warns, she is about to be taken to the tower in order to keep her away from others) but the palace slaves are at all times in fear of Aegisth’s wrath. These same slaves, with the exception of one, take out their own powerlessness by mocking Elektra, unforgiving for her inability to “forgive and forget” the terrible murder of Agamemnon. But what remains unsaid is that her condition endangers their own lives as well.
      The powerful queen, who cannot sleep because of her recurring nightmares, spends most of her days trying out various sacrifices to appease the gods. In other words, the Palace of Mycenae is quite obviously a bloody, bloody place, which even the timid Chrysthemis seeks to escape. Is it any wonder that Elektra has taken her bedding into the palace courtyard—beautifully designed by Richard Peduzzi—to live like a dog? 
       From her totally outsider position, at least, she can hurl her hateful vindictives almost without reaction. It is only when the distraught queen expresses her fears and, for a few intense moments actually attempts to communicate with her hateful daughter, that she opens herself up to attack, with Elektra demanding the one sacrifice Klytämmestra is unwilling to make—her own life.
      If Elektra is willing to act, she cannot, in the society of her day, actually commit the act. It is not, like Hamlet, that her intellect has created an impasse, but simply a matter of male power and privilege, which maddens her even more than the murder of her father. Unlike Strauss’s Salome, who uses her beauty and wit to destroy, von Hofmannsthal’s Elektra is a victim of her society, blocked from the ability to achieve her deed by her own sex—all the more galling because of her personal strength. She may be mad, but she is strong enough to survive even the loss of her youthful beauty and feminine appeal—aspects of her reality that she has willingly given up to her cause. 
      It is Orest (Eric Owens), of course, who has also been hounded out of this society, who must return to achieve the revenge. But even he, who has perhaps suffered even more than Elektra, is appalled by his sister’s appearance and demeanor. Although the two sing lovingly to one another, almost—despite this opera’s near-barbaric whirlwind of orchestration (evidently one of the largest orchestras in the Metropolitan’s history)—a love duet, after achieving the dreadful deed he walks away with seeming disgust, alike Herod’s final disgust of his daughter.
      In this production it would have seemed nearly unbearable to watch the sturdy Stemme perform a dance of death. She moves in a few strained gestures before sitting—for the first time in silence in this opera. If she hasn’t literally danced herself to death, she is now joyfully dead to the world. 
      Despite the unforgettable performances by all of this production’s leads, celebrated with a long standing ovation by both audience and even the orchestra (something I have never seen before), the real wonder of the opera, given von Hofmannsthal’s highly abbreviated libretto, was Strauss’ marvelous score which literally, under Esa-Pekka Salonen’s baton, swirled up the action into a near tornado of beauteous dissonance. From the pounded tympanum chords of the opera’s opening cry of “Agamemnon” to its last whorls of strings, Strauss’ music says nearly everything that this short opera has to say, music which I still can hear today, a half-week away from the Metropolitan HD broadcast. 

*The opera premiered at Semper Opernhaus in Dresden in 1909, with a performance at the Manhattan Opera in New York in 1910.

 

Los Angeles, May 3, 2016

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